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Causes of Eating Disorders - Cultural Influences

Bridget Engel, Psy.D., Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D., and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Particularly in modern Westernized countries, models, the media and dieting fads currently influence women and girls to be as thin as possible. Sociologists studying the development of eating disorders across time have noted that the ideals of beauty have changed and that thinness wasn't always considered attractive. Until the 1950's, curvy and plump bodies were the accepted body type. Now, an average US child watches 15-20 hours of television per week and is thus bombarded with approximately 30,000 television commercials each year. In these television images, approximately 23% of the female characters are underweight. In contrast, men are depicted as strong and powerful. Young girls and adolescents are influenced to think that the women portrayed in television, movies, and magazines are of normal weight and body shape. They often begin to believe that being thin makes them popular, successful and happy. The media thus presents a highly idealized and very much unrealistic fantasy version of reality to consumers. These images are unconsciously or passively ingrained in our minds,even when we know that the images are idealized. Less critically inclined individuals are at even greater risk of internalizing what they see on television as their personal standard of reality.

In 1999, a study was published about the effects of exposing a culture to Western television for the first time. Prior to the television viewing, the people of Fiji believed that the ideal body was plump, round, and soft. Interviews after 38 months of exposure to Westernized shows suggested a sharp decrease in self-esteem and an increase in symptoms of eating disorders in teenage girls.